Spoilers: Conservation is a primary concern for many Westerners, but they still don’t believe the states will sell off treasured public lands
You can poll voters on their perceptions of pretty much anything and there will typically be some partisan distinction. As a top pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, Lori Weigel can recall uncovering opposing views on French fries that seemingly ran along party lines. (More disturbing still, she and her colleagues identified a segment of the voting population who did not know that potato is the main ingredient in fries.) But, here in Colorado, where the TRCP is hosting our 14th annual Western Media Summit, opposition to water diversions is completely bipartisan.
That’s a pretty remarkable indication of the passion for healthy fish and wildlife populations in a swing state, and Weigel has a lot more data where that came from. Here are six things we learned about voter attitudes toward conservation, public lands, and clean water in the Western states:
- Unsurprisingly, the majority of voters feel the country is off on the wrong track. They want change. Public trust in government is at a near-all-time low, and confidence in other institutions—like banks, churches, police, and the media—have declined remarkably, too. Plus, there is an unprecedented amount of negativity about both presidential candidates.
- There is a silver lining: Three-quarters of Western voters say that conservation is an important issue in deciding whether or not to support a candidate up for election, and three in ten regard conservation as a “primary factor” in their decision, even among issues like the economy and healthcare. (Weigel says drought actually eclipsed the economy as a primary issue in recent polls.) Those numbers hold for Colorado and Nevada, important swing states in the upcoming presidential election, and Arizona, an emerging swing state. Conservation issues are deemed important by many of the critical “swing” groups, including sportsmen, Latinos, millennials, moderates, and suburban women.
- However, the majority of Westerners believe most candidates for president and Congress do not understand conservation issues well.
- Voters themselves don’t understand that oil and gas drilling can take place on public lands, even though energy development is part of the multiple-use mandate for national public lands. It’s actually what makes them quite different than state lands, which do not have a mandate to balance use between energy, grazing, timber, and outdoor recreation. Beyond this lack of understanding, Americans generally want to reduce our dependence on foreign energy, but in ways that are safe and do not make an impact close to home.
- But public lands are beloved—93 percent of voters in the Interior West say they visit national public lands. The transfer or sale of national public lands to Western states is more likely to be opposed in the West, too.
- But transfer is still a relatively new issue for voters, perhaps higher profile since the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and even sportsmen in the West have a hard time believing that the states would sell off the public lands we treasure. Despite the state track record of offloading lands to pay down deficits, voters are more wary of higher taxes than of losing these lands forever.
It seems to me that we have an opportunity to mobilize even more advocates for our public lands if we can frame state takeover as a conservation issue. Let’s harness the enthusiasm for our public lands, waters, and habitat, and get all those visitors to Western national parks and forests and BLM lands to stand up against handing them over to the states. It’s time to start believing that this could actually happen. The threat is real—two bills that would effectively transfer management of national forests to individual states have already been passed by the House Natural Resources Committee, and they head to the floor of the chamber for a full House vote.
Keeping our public lands in public hands is a conservation issue. It should factor into our voting decisions and motivate our actions. We should be willing to work for the change we want, not just hand off the challenges we have.
But don’t wait until the election to tell your decision-makers where you stand on America’s public lands.